Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
A kinder, gentler Taliban
Afghanistan’s Taliban have had a change of heart , and are no longer opposed to education for girls, according to the Afghan government. It’s the sort of shift that opens up the possibility of talks with the insurgents whose treatment of women has in the past drawn revulsion worldwide and made a deal that much harder.
Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak told the Times Educational Supplement that the upper echelons of the Taliban appeared to have softened their stance on education including schooling for girls . “It is attitudinal change, it is behavioural change, it is cultural change.” He didn’t say what had led to this profound transformation in the Taliban and how far they were willing to go to grant women rights.
The Taliban, themselves, have made no comment, so we only have the Afghan minister’s word for it. Kabul has been pressing hard for talks with the insurgents to end the conflict now in its 10th year, and it is quite possible that it is trying to present the Islamist group in a more favourable light . Indeed Wardak himself is a key player in President Hamid’s Karzai team seeking to persuade the Taliban to hold talks.
Women members of the Afghan parliament have reacted with disbelief to Wardak’s assertion that the Taliban had a new education policy, saying that the situation on the ground remained just as difficult for women. Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from the central-eastern Afghan province of Wardak, told the BBC she didn’t believe any of it because there was no school open for girls in the six Pasthun dominated districts of her province. The only schools open were in two districts dominated by the Hazaras. Marman Gulhar, another MP from the north-eastern province of Kunar said she didn’t think the Taliban would ever change their stance on education for girls. ”In fact they are fighting against that. The girls’ schools are closed and still are closed.”
It’s not the first time such reports have emerged about the Taliban showing signs of change. Back in 2007 the Taliban announced it would open schools in six provinces in the south that they said were under their control. They also promised to open schools for girls later on. A Taliban commander said they were not opposed to education as such; what they wanted was an Islamic form of education, not the Western model. They wanted schools to return to the textbooks of their era. One of the problems with those textbooks, though, was that some taught students to count with Kalashnikovs and to subtract by killing off members of rival groups. You would have to wonder if the Taliban’s change of heart was actually for the better. You could argue that if children are to be taught basic math with guns and kill rates they might be better off without such an education.
Thomas Ruttig at the Afghanistan Analysts Network says the situation is a bit more complicated than the assessment the Taliban was turning over a new leaf. He said there does seem to be a gradual shift in the Taliban’s position but it is not necessarily because they have suddenly realised the value of education for children, boy or girl. A lot of it has to do with ordinary Afghans who like parents anywhere else in the world want to educate their children including girls, although in large parts of the conservative Pashtun heartland they might not necessarily believe in educating girls to university levels. But basically they have been sending petitions to the Taliban to let schools open in the areas they control and the Taliban could be responding to that pressure, Ruttig says citing local sources.
He says the shift in the Taliban’s hard stance on education started in Aandar and Waghaz districts where the people pushed for the reopening of the schools that were closed for many years. Now, schools are said to be operating in all Pashtun (i.e. mainly Taleban-controlled) districts of Ghazni; in Andar, even girls’ schools are also said to be working, he says.
But the catch is, as we mentioned above, the curriculum is not the one laid down by the government, but the one developed by the Taliban. They also exercise full control over the school, choosing at least one teacher in every school who would operate as their representative. He would have to clear all other teachers employed at the school. In that respect it resembles the Taliban years in power when they made the village mullahs their eyes and ears, Ruttwig says.